In my first job fresh of out of B-school, a 20-something male friend of mine in investment banking gave me a piece of advice: “While I was reading over your shoulder on your laptop, I noticed that you started your email to your manager with ‘sorry.’ You really shouldn’t do that.”
From then on, I made the conscious decision to take his advice—and banish “sorry” from my work emails—unless I really meant it. Now, five years later, there’s a Gmail plug-in called “Just Not Sorry” designed to edit women’s speech and discourage them from saying words like “I think” or “just” or “sorry” that may weaken the message they’re trying to get across in work emails and the like.
The plug-in’s developer, Tami Reiss, explained in a recent interview, “We edit ourselves out and we minimize ourselves…because we're afraid of coming off as too strong, when in reality, by adding them in, we're making ourselves come off as weak.”
Reiss is right to point out that some women are afraid of coming off as too strong and being labeled as bossy. As Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant wrote in a New York Times op-ed last year, “When a woman speaks in a professional setting, she walks a tightrope. Either she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive.”
If women eliminate these words from their emails, then, will they be seen as aggressive, cold, or bitchy? The data says no. But the plug-in misses the much larger problem that persists for many women in the workplace: They lack confidence and have few mentors to help them navigate the professional landscape.
It’s true that many women—in an effort to soften their communication—diminish their words. In the book Playing Big, Tara Sophia gives women lessons on what she calls “communicating with power,” and offers techniques for eliminating the little things we do in our speech and writing that diminish potential impact. In an article for Goop, she explains the common “little things,” like including words like “just” and “actually,” using qualifiers (“I’m no expert in this, but…”), and asking “Does that make sense?” While women often claim that adding these little things makes them seem friendlier, warmer, and more approachable, they’re in fact making them appear less confident and less important.
What Reiss’ plug-in gets wrong, though, is labeling workplace communication as an issue specific to women, when all employees should be prioritizing their communication skills as a top goal for 2016. Society is telling us that women should change their language to match that of men, but it goes beyond that: Understanding the differences in how everyone how communicates and responds to situations in the workplace can facilitate adjustments, better communication, and a more productive work environment.
The same can be said of upspeak, or the tendency by women to raise their voices at the end of questions, which makes women sound tentative. Speech pathologist Susan Sankin explains, “…they feel that when they present themselves that it sounds as if they lack confidence, even though they're very capable, and they know that they have the capacity to sound better, more confident, more assured with some help.” Women who aim to be seen as leaders at work should care how they present themselves, which includes their verbal image. I’ve worked with a voice coach at Northwestern University and learned to speak in a deeper, stronger voice, and have thus eliminated upspeak at the end of my sentences, which helps me more confidently detail my skills and career achievements during job interviews.
Similarly, women need to tweak their language, both written and verbal, to take more credit for their accomplishments. In resumes, and in interviews, women more frequently use “we” when describing successes in their career, compared to the more frequent use of “I” by their male counterparts.
How, then, do we encourage women to strengthen their language? We shouldn’t rely on a plug-in to do it. An email that omits words like “sorry” will do little to improve how you’re viewed in the workplace, especially if you still use such words during in-person meetings and presentations. Last summer’s “Not Sorry” Pantene ad reminds us how often women use “sorry” in daily life.
As professional women, we need to not only write emails that clearly communicate our messages, but we must develop behaviors, speech, and body language in all settings to display confidence and poise to our colleagues, both male and female. For women with high career aspirations and ambitions to reach the c-suite, it’s vital to have the whole package—confidence, composure, decisiveness, and the ability to communicate in an articulate manner, according to Rebecca Shambaugh, founder of Women in Leadership and Learning.
Most alarmingly, the fact that Reiss felt the need to write code to help solve this issue points to the larger problem of women lacking mentors, and not investing the time to seek feedback on how to improve all forms of communication.
Throughout my career in technology and automotive, I’ve received advice from mentors, friends, and colleagues to work on effective communication in the workplace: how to deliver persuasive recommendations, when it is/is not appropriate to speak up in meetings, and eliminating my “filler” words when speaking. These are skills that all employees—not just women—should continuously work on. Sandberg and Grant say the long-term solution for women’s balancing act between bossy and demure is obviously to get more women into leadership roles. In the meantime, women must seek out opportunities to better develop their communication skills, which will help them more clearly communicate their ideas at all levels of the organization.
Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for taking credit for what we’ve achieved—and it is likely not going to come in the form of an email plug-in for women. While the plug-in may have been well-intentioned by its founders, it simply cannot create a sense of energy and empowerment that many women are lacking in the workplace.